Why don’t they just call it the Catholic March for Life? I wonder this every year when I wander down to Capitol Hill for the annual commemoration of Roe v. Wade. Thousands of anti-abortion Catholics and a few friends gather in Washington, DC for an always-cold schlep to the Supreme Court. This year was no exception. Emboldened by the recent Republican anti-choice gains in the House of Representatives, the crowd was more hopeful than in recent years but otherwise largely unchanged. They were Catholics.
Many of the participants are young people whose parishes charter buses to transport them to DC for the occasion. The younger ones—including middle and high school students—are given days off by their Catholic schools to enjoy a school sponsored (and in some cases paid for) trip to the Nation’s Capital. The older ones are college students who make a road trip of it, knowing that a night on a church floor and a day that begins with mass at the Verizon Center is a good way to meet (do they hook up, one wonders) other young people with similar theo-politics.
This is not to trivialize what I take to be their commitment to eradicating abortion, a position I as a Catholic do not share. But it is to say that from what I can tell the institutional Catholic Church subsidizes this event so significantly that truth in advertising suggests a name change.
I did see one marcher wearing a yarmulke on the Metro going home, but this crowd is Catholic. Clothes alone are a reliable indicator. Parish sweatshirts and Catholic college jackets are the outfits of choice on a cold day. One girl I ran into had a T-shirt that read “Macs for Life.” Should I think MacDonald’s was a sponsor, or maybe Apple? No, she assured me, this was from Immaculata University, a Catholic institution in Pennsylvania. Who knew?
This year hats and scarves in matching colors were de rigueur. Parish groups kept track of one another and chaperones found their children through ensembles in bright colors. Day-Glo shades were inexplicably popular. Some outfits bore the name of the parish church or the Catholic school from which they hailed. Many hats had religious symbols on them. But I did not notice any significant presence of mainline Protestants. In fact, LifeWatch, a group that has roots in the United Methodist Church but no official standing, sponsored a worship service before the march. Reports indicate that a mere seventeen people were in attendance, including some who are pro-choice.
It was a day for papal flags, banners like “Archdiocese of Chicago,” handmade life-size crosses, and even a gold crozier that someone brought along to add gravitas, or maybe just in place of a cane. It was hard to make out from my perch in an office along the route, but I thought I saw a reliquary go by. I shudder to think what was in it. There were statues of various saints and of the Blessed Virgin Mary in several of her varieties (Guadalupe being the favorite) carried on the shoulders of walkers like many a procession in Latin America. This was not civil religion but institutional Catholicism plan and simple.
The Youth Rally and Mass for Life at the Verizon Center and a similar event at the D.C. Armory packed in 27,000+ people on the morning of the march. The night before, the National Prayer Vigil for Life took place at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It included Mass followed by Confession, the National Rosary for Life (a new concept), and the observance of the Holy Hours for Life (another theological novelty) led by pro-life seminarians. Perhaps in addition to being a spiritual exercise the Vigil was also a good way to “house” a lot of people without running into fire code violations.
I could not find any other religious events advertised. Could it be that people of other faiths simply held private devotions? Perhaps, but more likely the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and their friends were the major sponsors of the whole weekend but just wanted it to appear more broadly based. The Polish seminarians’ banner conveys a message. International delegations from France and Ireland had similarly Catholics flavors. But finding Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, Pagan, and other participants was not easy.
Evangelical Christians put on a rock concert in a nearby park after the march this year. It was advertised by “Rock for Life” with the logo of a fetus playing an electric guitar. They offered some diversity. The problem is that by the time the march was over, most people I saw were either rushing to their buses or too cold and tired to enjoy the outside sounds. The concert looked rather sparsely attended. In their newfound media savvy the Catholic bishops may want their own concert next year. They would do better offering good coffee and hand warmers.
This was the 38th such March for Life. In all likelihood, there will be another one next January 22nd. But let’s call things by their names—a Catholic demonstration that is made to appear far more generic than it is. It reminds me of the theological sleight of hand that would have everyone think that all Catholics oppose abortion. We do not. And we value telling it like it is.